The History Of Memorial Day In The Northwoods

May 20, 2020

The Memorial Day weekend is nearly here. While Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of the summer season, it is worth remembering that what was once known as Decoration Day is about so much more. Historian Gary Entz has the story of early Memorial Day ceremonies.

Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer, but it is a solemn day of remembrance that dates to the American Civil War. Nevertheless, Memorial Day did not become a federally recognized holiday until Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968. Starting in 1971, this act created Memorial Day as a three-day holiday for federal workers.

Before Congress got involved, Memorial Day, which was largely known as Decoration Day, was practiced by the individual states. The solemn act of going out specifically on May 30 to decorate the graves of those who died in the Civil War was established in 1868, and by 1890 every Northern state recognized Decoration Day as an official state holiday. The Southern states refused to participate and held a separate day memorializing Confederate dead until after the First World War.

Wisconsin was among the early states adopting Memorial Day as a state holiday, and annual observances were held in Madison. Individual cities and towns in Wisconsin held observances as well, but it was not until after World War I that Decoration Day became a parade-worthy event for most Northwoods communities.

Rhinelander was one place that kept observances modest, but the American Legion, which was established by an Act of Congress in 1919, was instrumental in encouraging people to do more than decorate the graves of loved ones with flowers or bunting. Wausau and Hurley were two places that turned Memorial Day into a community-wide event early on, and by the late 1920s Rhinelander joined them.

The Memorial Day observance of 1929 was one for the record books. Well before the planned event, the American Legion sent out an urgent plea to all Rhinelander citizens to step forward and help make 1929 a Decoration Day to remember. The Eagles, Elks, Masons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Columbus, and other fraternal orders were asked to join in the parade and ceremonies, while the Rhinelander High School band and local Boy Scouts were also invited to participate.

The parade, led by the American Legion Drum and Bugle Corps, departed City Hall at 9:30 am and solemnly marched to Forest Home Cemetery. There the Gettysburg Address was read aloud, a presentation of America’s past wars was given, and Frederick S. Robbins of Rhinelander was honored as the sole Civil War veteran present. After the speakers and music from the Lake Tomahawk Quartet, and as the buglers were finishing taps, Rhinelander got the first ceremonial flypast in its history as an Eaglerock Biplane took off from Legion Field, swooped over the cemetery, and dropped flowers over the graves.

The parade and participants then moved on to St. Mary’s cemetery and repeated the entire ceremony. After the second services, the marchers moved on to the Davenport Street Bridge and held the services for a third time. This time to honor Northwoods sailors who lost their lives at sea. Flowers were dropped in the river rather than cemetery graves, thus honoring those who served on land, sea, and air.